Editor’s Note: ‘Along the Trail’ is a weekly column written by David Hewitt of Switzerland County; and covers all things dealing with the outdoors, from hunting and fishing to woodsmanship.
After three days of humping up and down the mountain sides in thin air, the thought of spending an evening hunting from a tree stand seemed like a good idea to me.
I had battled a bout of altitude sickness the night before. I violated one of the cardinal rules out here by not taking it slow and easy the first couple of days and I paid for it – imagine a hangover married to a migraine and throw in a sinus infection and joint stiffness and that will give you some idea of what high altitude illness feels like. I recovered after a half dozen ibuprofen and 10 hours of sleep, but still needed to back off the hiking and still hunting for a day.
Mike, our host for the week long hunt, had long ago placed a tree stand in a area he liked to call Bear Park. It looked like a wide open mountain meadow to me, but as I quickly learned, when in the Colorado back country, they don’t have fields, meadows or pastures – they are called parks; and as a non-resident, I had to learn the new lingo.
The stand stood perched against a trio of dead spruce trees that looked as if at any minute they would snap in half. The nylon ratchet strap holding the stand secure was dry rotted and sketchy at best. Mike assured me that it was fine and if it happened to snap, the surrounding trees would break my fall and besides, I was only 12 feet up the tree.
Time for the evening hunt had came and I slowly sneaked my way along the mile hike into Bear Park. The old logging road that led into the meadow was littered with bear sign. Scat piles here and there and evidence of bruins moving large boulders and shredding downed logs searching for insects, worms or whatever else might be on their menu. “Bear Park seemed an appropriate name given the amount of sign”, I thought to myself.
I have to admit that knowing there are four legged predators hunting the same forest as me put a little quick in my step.
I finally made it to my hiding spot, climbed up and settled in for the evening’s hunt. The watch was much like deer hunting back home, except these deer weigh in at 600-800 pounds and don’t follow a pattern and can be like finding a needle in a haystack! Wilderness nomads… I passed the time by munching on a chocolate bar and sipping water. The wind blew in my face and then at my back, then to my right and again to my left…About the only thing consistent about the mountain breeze is its inconsistency….
Just like back in my whitetail woods, my mind started to wonder. I began to think about work, what’s going on, what I’ll have to do when I return home. I think about my fiance´ and our upcoming nuptials and plans for that. Of course my kids cross my mind and I whisper a little prayer to cover them. A Pine Squirrel snaps me out of my day dreaming and chatters at me from just a few feet away.
“You’re lucky you don’t taste good”, I whisper under my breath to the little tree rat as I mock draw my bow and send an imaginary arrow through him.
A quick time check: 6:55 p.m., about an hour left in the hunt before the hike back in the mountain darkness.
“Swish, swish, swish”…
“Am I hearing something”, my mind asks…
“Swish, swish, swish”, again…
“You’re definitely hearing something!”, I think to myself.
It’s faint, but something is moving. I look over my left shoulder and there he is. 60 yards away, a beautiful bull elk. Calm as can be, moving through the high grass of the park. He’s making a “B” line into an ancient mineral lick placed by a long ago rancher, 30 yards from my hiding spot.
My heart is pounding and I can hear my pulse racing through my ears. He’s not a giant, but he’s far larger than most public land bulls in Colorado. A gorgeous 5×5 with the tops of his antlers crowned like a European Red Stag. He’s as regal of an animal as there is and he’s right here in front of me. I have no shot for the first 7 or 8 minutes. The old bull is facing me head on, only offering me a frontal shot, but the ethics of it is poor and he’s too far for me to pull that off. I bide my time and hope he’ll offer up his broadside or quarter away and give me the angle. I plead with him to turn, “Just Turn!”
Turn he does – but too quickly for a shot.
His huge body passes behind a dead, spruce snag as he leaves the mineral lick. “Take the shot when it clears the tree!”, I silently tell myself. He leisurely steps clear of the tree, acting more like an Angus steer than a wild deer.
“Right behind the shoulder, right behind the shoulder”, goes through my head as I pick my spot. I guess the old boy at 35 yards. The longbow comes back automatically and the arrow is gone in an instant. I watch the bright red and yellow feathers travel the distance to the target – only to see the arrow drop just under the bull’s “pocket”, that sweet spot, low and behind his shoulder.
A clean miss, the big boy takes a couple of hops and instantly calms down and meanders off into the dark timber. I break out my cow call and try to trick him back into range, but he’s got other things on his mind and vanishes in the shadows.
The shakes kick in and I find my seat – A big, stupid smile follows and I shake my head at the miss. Sure, I’m aggravated that I didn’t make meat out of the bruiser, but I’m grateful to have had the experience and given the fact that the success rate for bowhunters on Colorado elk hovers around 10%, I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity and for the memory.
It’s a long, dark hike back to camp, but I know what my thoughts will be filled with replaying the event over and over when my head hits the pillow and I feel satisfied. This hunt was a success and one that I will forever remember.
– David Hewitt